I was 20 years old when I discovered my grandma and I had the same face.
My grandpa was retiring for the first time (not the last) and we were putting pictures together for a party.
“Is it weird to know what you are going to look like when you’re 85?” asked a woman who worked with my grandpa. “I mean, it’s freaky!”
Looking at their wedding picture from 1942 and seeing basically my face staring back was sort of an out of body experience, but it all made sense. We shared a lot of similarities, number one being our temper.
“If my mother wasn’t still alive, I would swear you were her reincarnated!” … that was typically how my mom ended our arguments.
We share an affinity for blue and white striped shirts. It’s embarrassing how many family parties I would attend and arrive wearing something very similar to our matriarch. We both have Dom Perignon taste, but like to keep a Natty Light budget. And we are very cut and dry about where people stand with us. Either you’re in or you’re out.
I get my stubborn attitude from her, but this now 101 year old takes it to a new level. She has pretty much “died” twice now, or at least had a priest show up at her bedside to read her last rites, only to wake up the next day and tell us we are all overreacting.
“I just drank too much limoncello,” she told me the first time we thought we lost her to a stroke.
So here we are, knowing that the next time her brain “reboots”, it might not bounce back. My days with her are fleeting.
As often as I can, I tote my toddlers to her nursing home so we can spend time with her. Every once in a while, we take a scrapbook my mom made for her 90th birthday. We pretend its for her to look back on her life, but selfishly I think we want as many details as we can before it’s too late to ask.
A couple weeks ago, she was flipping through pictures of her high school years. She was stunning. Next to her 1934 graduation photo was a copy of her Valedictorian speech. She laughed as she told us she was captain of her basketball team, played soccer, and ran track.
The next page had photos from her first 2 years at Oberlin College.
“Did you have a major?” I asked
“I must have”, she said as she laughed, implying she doesn’t remember.
“What did you want to do? Was there a job you wanted?”
“Job? Those weren’t easy to come by back then.”
Oh yeah, it was 1937. But looking back, she was so accomplished. How many other females in 1934 were top of their class? Who else played every sport available? And college for women was rare.
She only went for 2 years until the money ran out. But then she moved back home to teach acting. That’s where she met my grandpa. He was her student and she was 3 years older.
As I watched the International Women’s March back in January, I wondered if my grandma had any desire to be one of those women in a wheelchair, thinking “this is what I fought for” or “this is what I wanted.” I always thought, she and I are so alike, she would probably be doing exactly what I am if she were in my shoes.
I took my shot at satisfying my curiosity.
“If you were a mom today, if you were in my shoes, would you want a job? Would you work?” I asked.
“No.” There was no waiver in her voice.
“I had a job at my house,” she said with conviction.
This was not how I pictured this conversation going.
“So, what do you think of how I’m raising kids? You know, working too,” I asked.
“Oh I think you do a fine job.” (A rare compliment)
“Thanks. But do you think I’m missing out on something?”
“Yes. I think you’re missing out on all the funny things your kids say and do through out the day. It goes by fast.”
UGH the DAGGER. She stabbed me with mom-guilt and then twisted the knife. I stopped asking questions.
I was so confused!!! This is the same woman that looked into my young college face and told me to go out and be whatever I wanted to be, even if it’s a stripper. Just be the best stripper I can be.
How could she still believe in societal gender roles? How could she live her life as an iron fist in a velvet glove (sometimes she didn’t even bother with the glove) and not want to see women conquer the world?!?!
I let this fester in my mind a few days. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t going to change her mind about women working and climbing that corporate ladder.
In a moment of clarity, it hit me. It’s not about changing her mind. She lived her life to change mine.
My grandma never portrayed the role as submissive female. She was the boss. Sure, she was never a CEO or high powered executive or attorney. But I never thought of her as unaccomplished. And she certainly slayed gender equality before it was even a thing.
It’s hard to put into words, but looking back, here are the lessons she taught me:
She commanded respect
COMMANDED… not demanded. There’s a difference. To command means “to direct authoritatively” or “to exercise a dominating influence over”. Demand means “asking especially with authority” or “something claimed as due or owed.”
My grandma never said the words “you have to respect me, because…” She was a force, and carried herself as if she were a five star General.
One of my grandpa’s favorite stories was about how days before he shipped off to fight in WWII, they went to a boardwalk near where he was stationed. There was a shooting gallery where all the men stepped up and took their turn shooting for prizes. Then the women took their turn. My grandma out-shot even the men. My grandpa looked at her and said “Why am I going over [to fight the Germans]?”
In her house, your manners better be on point. We were expected to fall in line and follow the rules. If we didn’t, her voice took a sharper tone and her Italian eyes flared. I think we weren’t afraid of her as much as we were afraid to disappoint her.
Spoiling didn’t lead to a richer life
I would beg to sleepover her house. And it wasn’t because she was the spoiling type. She didn’t shower us grandkids with gifts, we wouldn’t do things like get our nails done and shop. And the only toys in her basement were the spinning chairs up against the fully loaded bar.
But when I slept over, after we did a few chores, she would take me down to the creek behind her house and showed me how to skip rocks. We would look for minnows swimming. She took me into her rose garden or let me pick grapes from the vine. She showed me how to cook recipes handed down from her parents or grandparents.
My grandma was an experience.
There was no gender in her house
“Red” is her nickname, due to her deep auburn red hair. But being a redhead as a kid meant she got teased. She came home and told her dad that one little boy was teasing her, so they came up with a plan of attack. On the way to school the next day, she hid up in a tree and when that little boy walked underneath her, she jumped down and hit him with her lunchbox.
And that’s how you do it.
She herself wasn’t raised girly, and therefore, none of us were treated by designated gender roles at her house. All of the kids played baseball in the backyard. The girls were expected to find a sport and the boys were expected to appreciate the arts.
We weren’t her entire universe (but she was still proud)
“I don’t like sitting with all these old ladies,” she told me when she first moved into her retirement community, “all they talk about are their grandkids. Blah, blah, blah. Who cares, I have grandkids too.”
Yep. That summed it up. We were not the center of her universe. My grandma had friends to hang out with, watercolors to paint, books to read and Cleveland Indians baseball to watch. She exemplified a life of culture and expected the same out of us.
“…Besides,” she would tell me, “our family is involved in much more in much more interesting careers than theirs.”
So, as she sits here in her final days, I have to listen to the wise woman who lived her life ahead of her time. Don’t miss out. I have to respect that she’s looking back on a very fulfilling 101 years and telling me that one of the best things in life are your little toddlers discovering the world.
This doesn’t mean I’m not going to push ahead in a career or try to make an impact on my community. The world has changed and women have a new expectation and a new drive to command respect on a higher level. One of my major motivations is how I am raising my own girls. I want them to see that a woman can handle a career and a home.
But – for all those working parents out there – take it from all of the Cassidy grandkids in awe of their grandmother. Strength is not a title. It’s an attitude.